Stanford, CA—You just never know how or where inspiration will strike. From sitting beneath an apple tree to stepping into a bathtub, some of history’s greatest breakthroughs have occurred in the oddest places. Recently, Manu Prakash, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, had his ah-ha moment halfway around the world in a Ugandan health center. The workers were in desperate need of a functioning centrifuge for analyzing blood samples, and sure enough, they had one. Unfortunately, it was being used as a doorstop since it was useless without electricity (which the center did not have). Armed with that insight, he began his search for an inexpensive, manually powered solution that could help billions of people around the world.
Intuition guided Manu to consider children’s toys for inspiration. He shared, “[They] hide in them pretty profound physical phenomena that we just take for granted.” After ruling out slower spinning toys like yoyos and tops, he struck gold: the whirligig. This simple plaything works with very few pieces: a central disc is connected to handles via string. As the user pulls the handles apart, the disc spins faster and faster.
Confident they’d found their spark, his team developed their prototypes and clocked their “paperfuge” at over 125,000 rpm. That’s about 20 times the maximum rotational speed of a typical car engine. His team claims it sets the record for the highest RPM of any human powered device (beat that Soul Cycle enthusiasts!)
The final product is made of paper coated in a special polymer for strength so it can withstand the abuse that comes with all that speed. Healthcare workers anywhere can simply add their blood samples to the disc and pull the handles to spin the sample, resulting in cellular separation just like traditional centrifuges. From there, researchers can process and analyze the samples for parasites. Each paperfuge costs about 20¢ and the concept has proven effective in field tests.
Why This Matters—
All too often, we look for fixes to our challenges in familiar places. Healthcare is too important for us to settle for mediocre solutions. We need to look more broadly to find the answers to tomorrow’s questions. From using virtual reality to reverse paralysis to creating socks that can help predict foot ulcers in diabetic patients, thinking outside the healthcare box has resulted in countless recent breakthroughs. These success stories may make broadening our search field the new norm in our industry.